Once in Royal David’s City

Belvoir Street, February 28

You know those art exhibitions where a painter has knocked up two dozen variations on the same picture? I presume someone out there likes that sort of thing, but I’m always left wondering why the artist could only come up with one idea. I prefer the people who keep reinventing themselves and taking risks with their work: the Picassos and the Shakespeares.

Playwright Michael Gow may not be in quite that league, but he certainly avoids sitting the laurels of his previous work. Each play seems to be a fresh perspective on his art, whether in terms of use of language, tone, structure, subject matter or all four. Once in Royal David’s City, his latest play, shakes things up again as he messes with convention; as he throws Brechtian devices at a work that has a protagonist deciding whether or not to deliver a lecture on Brecht. It is dangerously didactic, warmly human and provocatively off-beat.

Once in Royal 1
Brendan Cowell. Photo: Ellis Parrinder.

That protagonist’s opening lines – “Welcome. Thanks for coming. I’m in an airport. The stage represents the airport” – hurls us into that Brechtian world. Those who purchased a program containing the complete script were there even sooner, as under the heading of “Setting” Gow rather mischievously just says, “The play takes place in a theatre.”

The protagonist, Will, a theatre director played by Brendan Cowell, talks to the audience with the same combination of matter-of-factness and sudden emotional vehemence that he brings to his dealings with the other characters. It is a challenging role, and one that is vaguely disquieting for the audience at the outset. Somehow the character and Cowell’s portrayal is also slightly irritating early on, but as we adjust to the play’s conventions and come to empathise with Will’s situation – his mother (Helen Morse) is dying of pancreatic cancer – we go with him. This is crucial, as the lecture on Brecht and Marxism that he gives at the end could fail miserably to hit its note of painful triumph were we not on side, and descend into nothing more than crude proselytising on the author’s part.

By then Will’s mother has died, and all that he has told her while she lies unconscious has backgrounded us in his frustration with the cleverly sold modern narrative that there is no longer a class struggle worth the name, or a need for one.

Eamon Flack’s production is sharp and minimalist, with an all-but-bare stage and lighting devised by Nick Schlieper. The supporting actors – Helen Buday, Maggie Dence, young Harry Greenwood (again acquitting himself admirably after his role in STC’s Fury last year), Lech Mackiewicz, Tara Morice and Anthony Phelan – are choreographed with the same precision they bring to their four-part harmonies when singing Christmas carols. (Hence the play’s title.)

This is not a great work by any means, but it is engaging, a little confronting, intellectually stimulating and occasionally extremely moving. Just as Brecht would have prescribed.

Until March 23.